Popular haunted house Bennett's Curse could be suffering from a curse of its own and miss Halloween altogether this year.
The walk-through attraction, where actors in settings such as "underworld" and "Dante's Inferno" aim to scare and startle, has been unable to open the past two weekends in a warehouse near M&T Bank Stadium because it lacks a city fire permit, the business' owners said Monday.
Owners Allan C. and Jill A. Bennett say officials in the city fire marshal's office refuse to consider the $40,000 worth of fire prevention improvements the couple invested in lieu of a sprinkler system required for a use and occupancy permit.
A failure to open will mean no jobs for the attraction's 100 actors and potential bankruptcy for the 15-year-old small business that started at Arundel Mills mall and counts on 24 nights a year, mostly in October, for its income, Jill Bennett said.
"Not opening is going to destroy us," Bennett said Monday. "We don't have next month."
A spokesman for the city Fire Marshal's Office did not respond to several requests for comment.
The attraction operated last year in the West Ostend Street warehouse without a sprinkler system, Jill Bennett said. Officials later told the owners they would need to install sprinklers, but the landlord declined to install a system, at an estimated cost of $150,000. Bennett said she and her husband spent months with the state Department of Commerce seeking a new location on a farm or in a commercial space, to no avail.
With nowhere else to go, the Bennetts said, they hired fire protection consultants and installed a smoke detection and fire alarm system they were told is more sensitive and offers more rapid detection of smoke or fire than a sprinkler system.
"We got to a point where we had to stay. We couldn't move. Our show is that large," Bennett said. "This is high tech stuff we put in there, above what the code requires in the state. We've done that in lieu of sprinkling. We're just trying to exist."
Bennett said she believes her business' situation should be considered on a "case-by-case" basis based on a September 2015 memo from the Office of the State Fire Marshal. The memo classified haunted houses as "special amusement buildings," and says they should be protected by automatic sprinkler systems.
But in some cases where the requirement presents practical hardships, the memo says, "as an alternative, consideration may be given to the overall fire and life safety risk, on a case-by-case basis, to determine if additional safety precautions such as additional exits, limited occupant load, additional staff to perform 'fire watch' duties, etc. will provide a reasonable level of safety as determined by the local fire authority."
Bennett's Curse was forced to leave its spot outside Arundel Mills, where it started in 2001, because of redevelopment on the site, Bennett said. She said redevelopment at the attraction's next location, Blob's Park in Jessup, also pushed the business out.
The attraction has become nationally known and often appears on national best-of lists for haunted houses. Bennett estimated that more than 10,000 people attended last year.
She said her husband has always loved Halloween and got the idea to operate a haunted house after going on a Baltimore County hay ride one year.
"His passion became my passion," she said.